This posting was written with Kris MacKain, Ph.D.
Originally published in January 2012
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Sometimes we are emotionally wounded by the negative behaviors of other people toward us, resulting in disabling feelings of hurt, anger, and/or resentment. Forgiveness is a process that enables us to let go of that resentment.
Though many would agree that forgiveness is the best way to free us from those negative feelings, why is it so often difficult to do? How many times have you (or others you know) said that they are not ready to forgive or cannot forgive? Why do we hang on to our hurt feelings, which are obviously not doing us any good, and continue to harbor (even nurse!) our negative feelings toward those who have hurt us?
Perhaps it’s because we fear that there will be negative consequences for us if we forgive. Or maybe it’s because we don’t fully understand what forgiveness is and the profound positive (even transformational) effect that it can have on us.
In considering the potential negative consequences of forgiveness, we may worry that, if we forgive our offenders, we will be:
- Admitting to them, the rest of the world, and us that what they did was acceptable.
- Condoning their hurtful behavior instead of getting justice (making them culpable) or revenge, so that they’ll think twice before trying to hurt us again.
- Minimizing or suppressing our hurt feelings instead of resolving them.
- Opening the door to further abuse by letting down our guard.
From this perspective, forgiveness can make things worse, not better! It’s no wonder people balk at forgiveness. But forgiveness is not letting offenders off the hook so that they can abuse again and it is not minimizing or suppressing the trauma we experienced.
The secret (and beauty) of forgiveness is that it is not about the offender or their acts against us. Rather, it is about us.
The process of forgiveness is profound, restorative and transformative and may be one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. The key to forgiveness is learning what we have to do and then walking the path with the courage and wisdom we all have within us.
On the path to forgiveness, there are two significant tasks: the first is detaching from the offender and the emotional pain we experienced. The second, which is made possible through detachment, is “opening our hearts” to our true selves.
The writer and mystic, Thomas Merton, once wrote, “The secret of interior peace is detachment”. During the process of forgiveness, we do not detach by fully forgetting or editing what happened in the past. Rather, we focus on those aspects of the painful experience that inhibit or prevent us from moving beyond the hurt in order to gain a new, healthier perspective about our situation.
1. Detaching from negative feelings. It is important, first, to communicate our hurt and have our feelings validated. However, we then need to move past venting our feelings by learning to relate our story in an objective manner, without emotion. For example, we do not demonize the offender, engage in self-pity, and/or vent our rage or resentment. Detaching from our negative feelings has a positive effect on our physical and emotional health and will help free us to assess our situation in a different light.
2. Defining ourselves by what happened. Sometimes when bad things happen to us, it morphs into reshaping our identity, as in “I’m a rape victim” or “I’m a down-sized executive”. This identity as a victim of unfortunate circumstances is reinforced when we continually reminisce about the hurts of our past. By reframing our experience, we come to recognize that the bad things that happen to us need not define who we are. At our core, we are capable of much more than that.
3. Giving up the idea that the offender must change. It is unrealistic to expect others to change when we forgive them. Once we relinquish the need for their changing, we come to accept what is. This frees us to move toward our truer and deeper selves. It is here that we arrive at the key and the mystery to forgiveness: we do not forgive others in order to change their behavior or disposition toward us; rather, we forgive in order to transform ourselves.
A natural response to being hurt is to shut down and close our hearts. A key factor in healing, however, is to open our hearts so that we can view the offender and ourselves in new ways.
Opening our Hearts
“To be loving and kind is our deepest aspiration, because love and kindness is the true nature of the human heart” –Buddhist Nun Kathleen McDonald
Opening our hearts takes us to the last leg of our journey. It is here that we experience a release from emotional pain and the recognition of our spiritual power.
So how do we open our hearts? By doing the following:
- Choosing the type of person we want to be and acting according to our highest nature or “true selves”.
- Connecting with a universal source of truth and goodness through our spiritual traditions or within ourselves. This focus helps to move us beyond our pain to empowerment and inner peace.
- Acknowledging that, as in all world religious traditions and other spiritual philosophies, the love for all humans, from family to enemy, is an achievable ideal.
- Learning ways (via detachment) to a greater understanding of and empathy toward the offender, leading us to genuine compassion.
- Transforming our personally destructive rage into productive action that helps others who have experienced similar traumas.
The journey of forgiveness is a journey of transformation. We empty our hands of hurt and open our hearts to become empowered by forgiveness. In so doing, we fully embrace our true nature and highest potential as human beings.
There are as many ways to forgive and many lessons to be learned along the way. Please share your forgiveness journey in the comments section.
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